Congress created a distinction between the definitions of “distance education” and “correspondence education” for purposes of federal financial aid eligibility. The distinction is that distance education courses include “regular and substantive interaction” (or RSI) whereas correspondence courses do not. Identifying the difference stemmed from concerns relating to consumer protection and potential fraud in correspondence education and the growth of distance education.
What this means is that institutions offering more than 50 percent of their total course offerings via correspondence education or enrolling more than 50 percent of their students in correspondence courses are not eligible to participate in Title IV financial aid programs.
Last year, we wrote about our analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s (the Department) recently effective regulations that defined regular and substantive interaction. Along with that blog post, we wrote a letter to the Department requesting guidance on the application of regular and substantive interaction to the definition of distance education in 34 CFR 600.2. The letter also addressed issues regarding when distance education programs need to be approved by accrediting agencies. In talking with personnel from institutions about these updated regulations, there were commonly raised questions, and some divergent interpretations, of the definitions. It was clear that further guidance from the Department would be of value.
Fall 2022 Update
In October 2022, we submitted a second letter (in partnership with OLC, Quality Matters, and UPCEA) requesting a response to our request. A few days later we received communication from the Department with responses to our questions that had been delayed in transit. Without further ado, let’s turn to the key takeaways from the Department’s response.
Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education
We wanted to better understand the Department’s Guidance on Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements for Distance Education, which refers to when an institution needs to seek institutional accreditation approval for offering distance education programs. The question arose from Departmental guidance issues in the last days of the previous administration, which stated that accrediting agencies must approve programs that are delivered “in whole or in part” via distance education. That lowered the bar from the previous 50 percent threshold for approval of an institution’s initial or first distance education offering. We wrote more about that guidance in a previous post.
We also wondered if that program level threshold applies to courses, since that is the unit of measure for “regular and substantive interaction” reviews. So, we asked whether the “offered in whole or in part through telecommunication” language in 34 CFR 668.8(m) means that courses using any variation of distance education is now considered distance education and thus creates the need for approval of that program.
Key Takeaway #1: The regulations only require initial approval to offer distance education, but accreditors have discretion to require approval for each distance education program.
To our question on whether every program with one course utilizing distance education would require programmatic approval from their accrediting agency, the Department responded that if one course in a program is offered using distance education, it is subject to the requirements in 34 CFR 668.8(m).
Note that they continued the position that if programs are offered “in whole or in part” via distance education, then approval is needed. However, in the Department’s view, the regulations require the accrediting agency to evaluate and approve an institution’s initial offering of distance education but do not require the agencies to approve every program using distance education.
The accrediting agency may choose to require additional approvals for each distance education program, and, if so, the institution must obtain that approval. If the institution has been previously approved to offer programs by distance education (as defined by their accreditor), the accreditor may still require notification prior to implementation when an institution adds a distance education delivery to an existing program delivered face-to-face.
Key Takeaway #2: Accreditors have discretion to determine what courses are considered distance education for purposes of accreditor approval in 34 CFR 668.8(m).
Since the approval process required only one “distance education” course to trigger the need for accreditation approval, we asked what constitutes a “distance education” course. Do blended, hybrid, hyflex, or other variations count as “distance education?” That determination is left to the accreditors.
The Department thought the discretion to be important “since a reasonable treatment of a course as “distance education” in one type of program that accrediting agencies oversee (e.g., cosmetology) might differ substantially from reasonable treatment in another (e.g., information technology).”
Regular and Substantive Interaction Between Instructors and Students
Key Takeaway #1: As used by the Department, “direct instruction” means “live, synchronous instruction where both the instructor and the student are online and in communication at the same time.”
“Direct instruction” was an undefined term used as one of five criteria that a course could meet to meet the “substantive” part of the “regular and substantive interaction.” Our understanding is that “direct instruction” had been interpreted by some institutions and accrediting agencies to encompass both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, so we recommend evaluating your policies as needed. We would be interested to hear how this departmental interpretation of direct instruction may change or impact your current practices.
Substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following—
– Providing direct instruction;
– Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework;
– Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;
– Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or,
– Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.
While this interpretation may feel limiting, it is not a prohibition on the use of asynchronous video lectures in online courses. Asynchronous video lectures still can add value to courses and should be used as instructors see fit. The only limitation here is that these video lectures cannot be used to meet RSI requirements. Direct instruction is one of the five “substantive” criteria and quality courses should easily meet at the requirement of meeting two of those five criteria.
Further, there would still need to be evidence that a course regularly utilized at least two of the five options for substantive interaction. Please note the emphasis on the term regular, as substantive interactions must still occur on a regular (as defined) basis to meet the requirements of the regulation. For example, it would not suffice to post only one discussion thread and grade one assessment to satisfy the requirements. There needs to be evidence of these interactions occurring on a “predictable and scheduled basis” pursuant to the definition of regular interaction.
The Department of Education’s interpretation of direct instruction does not disqualify asynchronous instruction from receiving federal financial aid. It only means that asynchronous video instruction does not qualify as “direct instruction” for purposes of showing substantive interaction in a course. Quality courses will easily meet the substantive interaction requirement by showing at least two of the other options are present in a course.
Key Takeaway #2: The Department defers to accreditors for decisions relating to qualifications of instructors and approval of “other instructional activities” that could be considered substantive interaction.
The Department noted that accrediting agencies establish requirements for qualified instructors in their policies and procedures and that ED chooses to defer to accrediting agencies when it comes to how it pertains to definition of distance education. If you have any questions relating to whether team instructors, Teaching Assistants, or Graduate Assistants would meet accreditor qualifications, it would be wise to run any questions or concerns by their accreditors and document any responses.
Key Takeaway #3: Many questions will have to be answered on a case-by-case basis by the Department to each institution and its academic program
The Department indicated that the following issues will be addressed on a case-by-case basis:
determinations about the degree of activity in facilitating group discussions. They would not give set guidelines on how much activity satisfied this requirement of the “substantive” portion of the definition.
the specific criteria for measuring compliance with the “promptly and proactively” requirement of the “regular” portion of the definition.
whether interactions are “commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency” (the Department noted that institutions must ensure that they can document the length of a course in weeks of instruction and the number of credit hours, or the equivalent associated with the course or competency. All other determinations related to this requirement would be determined on a case-by-case basis).
Key Takeaway #4: Institutions have discretion on the specific methods to use to implement and enforce these policies relating to RSI
The Department confirmed information in the preamble to the final regulations that it expects an institution to maintain policies or procedures that create expectations for faculty to substantively interact with students but declined to provide further information.
In general, the Department would evaluate whether an institution has “create[d] expectations for instructors to monitor each student’s engagement and substantively engage with students on the basis of that monitoring…” to determine an institution’s compliance with these requirements. The Department noted that this could be done “through a combination of the establishment of policies and procedures and regular evaluation to ensure that instructors are complying with the institution’s requirements for monitoring and outreach.”.
An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, prior to the student’s completion of a course or competency—
1. Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount ofcontent in the course or competency; and
2. Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and ensuring that aninstructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantiveinteraction with the student when needed, on the basis of such monitoring, or uponrequest by the student.
Key Takeaway #5: Scheduled “office hours” can fulfill part of the requirement for regular interaction between instructors and students
The Department cited the preamble to the final regulations and confirmed that this could fulfill part of the regular interaction requirements so long as instructors made themselves regularly available at scheduled times, regardless of whether the students chose to make use of the opportunity or interact with the instructor at the scheduled time. We had heard that some financial aid officers or other campus leaders were reluctant to count “office hours” as they seemingly were not part of the “regular” determination in the past.
Where Do We Go from Here?
First of all, WCET heartily thanks the Department of Education for its response to our letter. Our goals should be for a clear joint understanding of how to best protect students as consumers and to assure that federal financial aid dollars are spent judiciously.
WCET hopes to learn more from the accrediting agencies as to their perspectives. Given the Department’s response to relegate some of the decision making to the accrediting agencies, it would be valuable for institutions to have a clear understanding of the accreditor perspective.
We are pleased to have members who have shared institutional perspectives on compliance with regular and substantive interactions. In a WCET Frontiers blog post, SUNY Online announced the release of the Online Course Quality Review Rubric (OSCQR) 4.0 which has been updated to reflect the regulation regarding requirements for regular and substantive interaction. In a WCET/SAN member only policy webcast, Erika Swain from University of Colorado at Boulder shared practical approaches to managing regular and substantive interaction at her institution. And Josh Strigle from the College of Central Florida has presented on an instructional design approach to compliance with RSI at the WCET Annual Meeting and elsewhere. These are just a few examples of the work being done.
Based on the Department’s response, we do not anticipate any official guidance to further clarify any questions relating to regular and substantive interaction and its application. More information will be learned as institutions undergo program reviews, departmental audits, and accreditor reviews, and we hope to gather some insights from those who may be willing to share. This has important implications because, as you may recall, over the years, interpretations of requirements were pieced together from departmental guidance and Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit reports. So, when it comes to some more nuanced questions, answers may well not be received if and until an institution undergoes a review of the issue.
WCET and SAN plan to dive further into these responses and seek institutional feedback on what (if any) challenges or opportunities these responses present for their institutions.
Kathryn joined us in July 2021 as the director, digital learning policy, and compliance where she assists with the overall activities of the WCET State Authorization Network (SAN). In collaboration with the senior director for policy innovations and the director, interstate policy and compliance, she focuses on institutional and programmatic compliance rules and regulations, including accreditation requirements, international compliance issues, and strategies for institutional regulatory compliance when serving students by means of digital learning. Kathryn coordinates training materials, builds communities of practice, and canvasses members for compliance strategies; she is an integral asset to our team.
Previously, Kathryn worked on state authorization and related compliance issues for the University of Louisville for seven years, during which she gained experience in analyzing and interpreting various federal, state, and accreditor requirements while developing institutional policies and procedures for compliance. Her exemplary work and dedication earned her institution three SANsational awards along with multiple invitations to present at conferences and webinars.
Kathryn earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Juris Doctor from the University of Louisville and is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Outside of work, Kathryn spends time with her family (her husband, son, and three cats). From running to fostering cats and kittens for a local rescue organization to listening to podcasts, Kathryn keeps plenty busy and, when she’s not busy chasing around her toddler son, she enjoys immersing herself in various craft and video projects.
Currently, her favorite character is “the Joker” (Heath Ledger, from the Dark Knight).